Research point: Contemporary awareness 3

As directed, I have looked at a range of contemporary portrait photographers that produce work to which I have some reaction (positive or otherwise). I’ve selected a few from the list suggested in the course notes and added a couple others I’ve found over my studies.

Note that I have recently looked at a number of contemporary portraitists (Charles Fréger, Julian Germain, Christoph Soeder, Sissel Thastum and Alec Soth) that my tutor suggested at the start of this section. I won’t repeat these here but will select others to discuss.

One more note before I start: I’ve looked at all of the photographers suggested but chose not to cover most of the ones who specialise in portraits of celebrities (using that terms in its widest else, meaning anyone that is known to the public). The reason for this is, and I have banged on about this in the past I admit, I find portraits of ‘known’ subjects to be inherently less interesting than images of strangers. Looking at an image of a known subject is an exercise in reassurance, of recognition – and I don’t personally find that very engaging. Of far more interest is a good portrait of an unfamiliar subject: to me the ‘magic’ of a really effective portrait is the illusion that the viewer can know something of the subject, even when they manifestly do not.

The exceptions to this are the photographers who find ways of shooting known subjects in particularly visually interesting ways. I will start with one of these.

Joe McGorty

Vincent Cassel 3_1500
Vincent Cassel by Joe McGorty

Of all the ‘celebrity’ photographers in the list, McGorty at least makes an effort to vary his staging and composition to bring out something of the personality of the sitter. He moves between B&W and colour, between simple head-on poses and more candid moments without eye contact, between simple headshot and more sophisticated environmental portraits.

His shot of Vincent Cassel is a example of a good McGorty portrait. It places him in a glamorous French Riviera context, surrounded by people but the focus is entirely on Cassel; the black suit not only signifies effortless continental style but visually makes for superb figure/ground contrast; the casual stroll and glance to the side oozes cool; everything in the frame draws you to Cassel’s face.

Paul Floyd Blake

from Doctor Who & Me by Paul Floyd Blake

Though not all of his work is portraiture, it does feature strongly in his portfolio. There’s an underlying sense of gentle melancholy to much of his work; to use his own words, his images come about “through my melancholic observations”.

Of particular interest to me for my current assignment, he eschews studio portraiture and works in the environments of his subjects. The connection between the location and the sitter comes through as an important aspect of his best portraits.

This portrait of a Doctor Who fan works exceptionally well for me, not for the more obvious element of the mask but for the more subtle signifier of the narrowness of the room.

He works very much in a realist, unfussy documentary photography style. The risk with this is that some of his portraits are so subtle, so nuanced that at first sight they are unremarkable.

Ali Lomas

I found Lomas’ personal story to be more interesting than her photography (partly because I couldn’t find much of it; she’s wiped her portfolio site). After successfully shooting portraits, including being the youngest person to exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery, she gave it all up to become an A&E nurse. She had been shooting nurse portraits and decided “I wanted to become my subject”. That’s subject empathy to an extreme degree.

from To Feel Beautiful by Ali Lomas

I did find some of her early work, To Feel Beautiful (2010), for which she won The Godfrey Argent Award. I found them interesting to look at and thought-provoking in the way they subverted the normal ‘happy’ presentation of young women in the media – but for me they are constructed scenes much more than they are portraits (despite being part of that year’s Taylor Wessing prize). A good portrait tells you something about the subject; these tell you something about a fictional character/amalgam created for the photo.

Jeffrey Stockbridge

from Kensington Blues by Jeffrey Stockbridge

My first impression was of an Alec Soth type, affirmed by my reading that he uses a 4×5 camera for ‘slow photography’.

Like Soth he works in the space between art, portraiture, landscape and documentary photography, though his milieu is more gritty and urban.

His portrait work is part of larger social issue projects, such as Kensington Blues about Philadelphia drug addicts. He gets to know his subjects, gathering written and audio testimonies along with the photos.

One does get a  sense of individual personalities behind the stereotypes, helped by his eye for posing his subjects in striking compositions.

Largely I wasn’t that enamoured with the list provided in the course notes, as I found little by way of originality and an over-emphasis on known subjects.

My own research has uncovered a couple of portraitists that are producing more interesting work.

Jack Davison

Despite being annoyingly young ;-) Davison has impressed me in his brief career so far. He has a playful, experimental approach to portraiture that finds seemingly infinite ways of representing individuals and makes one wonder why so much portraiture is so similar.

He obscures the face partially or wholly in a variety of different ways, and as noted elsewhere that’s one of the aspects of portraiture that I find most intriguing. In the example above there are a number of visual elements that make it a striking image: the vantage point, looking down onto the face; the close crop; the closed eyes – but most of all the shadow pattern on the face: it places the subject in 3D space, with something between her and the light source. Does it tell you anything about the sitter? I think it does, or at least it implies something, gives the illusion of telling you something; it ‘tells’ me that she is a dreamer, a free thinker.

This experimental approach (however it manifests itself) makes the images worth a second look, it draws you into an photo because it both does and doesn’t resemble a portrait. In a 2015 BJP interview he talked about spontaneity being a big part of his work, and (rather oddly, or sweetly I thought) said that he hadn’t noticed his own preference for obscuring the face (BJP, December 2015). Maybe it’s all very subconscious…

Richard Learoyd

Learyod’s distinctive approach is to use a room-sized camera obscura to create his pictures, which are mostly portraits and often of a recurring set of sitters. I’m not normally a fan of photography where the technical method is the point of interest as most of it is simply gimmickry without any real depth in the final results – but Learoyd is absolutely the exception to this.

Agnes with Eyes Closed (detail) © Richard Learoyd
Agnes with Eyes Closed (detail) © Richard Learoyd

I’ve seen Learoyd’s Dark Mirror exhibition at the V&A and there’s two aspects that really struck me: first, the portraits are the most unnervingly realistic I had never seen – you almost expect the subject to turn around and address you. This in itself makes the viewer believe (more than with a regular portrait) that you are in the presence of a true individual with their own life, quirks, character traits. And secondly, each photograph is a unique positive, and there are no negatives and so no ability to truly reproduce. Whilst normal for painting, this is highly unusual for a photograph, and in a strange way made me appreciate the images more than I normally would. The uniqueness of the image matches the uniqueness of the individual – the two concepts work hand-in-hand for me.


Joe McGorty (accessed 04/07/2016)

Paul Floyd Blake (accessed 04/07/2016)

Ali Lomas (accessed 04/07/2016)

Jeffrey Stockbridge (accessed 04/07/2016)

Jack Davison (accessed 06/07/2016)

Seymour, T. (2015) ‘Altered Images’ in: British Journal of Photography December 2015 (iPad edition) p27

Richard Learoyd (accessed 06/07/2016)


3 thoughts on “Research point: Contemporary awareness 3

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